A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

“You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

 

Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanity’s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell — his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.

Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friend’s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.” Shortly after arriving, he wrote: “The day will come when I shall be able to say, ‘I became an artist through Mary Haskell.’”

But the open hands of Haskell’s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress — a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.

Mary Haskell and Kahlil Gibran. Portrait and self-portrait by Gibran.

Their relationship, like that of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, defies classification and the containment of simplistic labels, but one unquestionable postulate radiates from the dazzling richness and complexity of their decades-long emotional entanglement: the enormous and eternal love they had for one another, which blooms to life in Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal (public library).

In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:

On Christmas Day that year, he writes:

I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.

Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:

Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.

“Mary,” he said, “whenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all — you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.” “But I take you with me,” said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.

The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.

But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn — the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each other’s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:

It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!

 

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